The barren moon could become an astronomer’s paradise, an ideal spot for telescopes and other devices to scope out the heavens as never before. Creating the lunar lookout is one proposal under review during the weeklong fifth gathering of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group, or ILEWG, being held this week on Hawaii’s Kohala Coast.
ASTRONAUTS, SCIENTISTS and engineers, as well as business people and entrepreneurs, are sharing ways to convert the bleak moon into a bustling, off-Earth continent for scientific research, technology testing, energy production, even as a practice ground for future expeditions to Mars.
Representatives from various spacefaring nations, including China, India and Japan, are taking part in the event, seeking to develop global and interglobal partnerships to further a lunar exploration agenda.
“The moon is the next logical step after the space station,” said Steve Durst, ILEWG 5 co-chair and head of Space Age Publishing Co. “It is important that we become a multi-planet species…and that begins at the moon.”
Durst said that this week’s ILEWG get-together brings to the table interests of the six major spacefaring powers: the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, China and India. “That’s the big story of this gathering … the international nature of lunar exploration that’s forming,” he noted.
“NASA has had an irrational taboo and paranoia about the moon for a long time,” Durst said. “If you just go straight to Mars, nothing will change.”
The No. 1 goal of the conference, Durst said, is to see people on the moon within the decade. To kick-start that objective, a strategy to be presented is planting on the lunar surface an initial astronomical capability. That first element would later be serviced and upgraded by “astronomer technicians,” as would a buildup of other observational gear. In tending a growing cluster of lunar-based instruments, a human presence on the moon would evolve, he said.
Considering the moon as a heavenly counterpart to a mountaintop on Earth suitable for astronomy fits well, given the locale of the meeting, Durst added.
The summit of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii, for instance, hosts the world’s largest astronomical observatory, with telescopes operated by astronomers from eleven countries. There are currently 13 working telescopes near the summit of Mauna Kea. Nine of them are for optical and infrared astronomy, three of them are for submillimeter wavelength astronomy, and one is for radio astronomy.
Another proposal to be suggested at ILEWG is an astrobiology mission to the south pole of the moon.
Longtime lunar advocate Paul Lowman, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is on tap to describe robotic missions to the region of the south pole of the moon. The primary objective is to emplace there a four-telescope, passively-cooled submillimeter interferometric array.
The telescopes would be spread out across the lunar surface. The Lunar Submillimeter Probe of the Evolution of Cosmic Structure, or LSPECS, would carry out “molecular astronomy,” Lowman proposes.
More than 120 molecular species in interstellar space have been discovered, specifically in giant molecular clouds. Most of these species are possible prebiotic material from which life may have arisen on Earth and perhaps elsewhere. It is for these reasons that the LSPECS mission is termed an “astrobiology” mission, Lowman suggests.
Lunar location of the submillimeter telescopes would be just north of Shackleton Crater on the earthward side. There, the prevailing low temperature is ideal for submillimeter astronomy. Better yet is setting up the scopes in permanently shaded craters, such as the floor of Shackleton Crater. Such an array could be established within 5 to 10 years, Lowman reports.
There’s an added bonus in “grounding” such an array on the moon. Putting LSPECS on the lunar surface would avoid the enormous challenge that formation flying or tethered interferometric arrays face if attempted in free space.
The array is conceived of as being installed on the moon robotically.
“However, should humans return to the moon, the LSPECS could serve as the nucleus of a manned astronomical complex. Astronaut participation has long since been proven invaluable in lunar surface operations, and needs no further justification,” Lowman argues.
TRUE SPACE INDEPENDENCE
A return to the moon is a new destination for the American space program.
Paul Spudis, a scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., holds that view.
“NASA has no future plans for human exploration of space beyond completion of the international space station. Yet human spaceflight makes up the bulk of the agency’s budget and is also the source of most of the public support the space program retains. Without a new follow-on goal, human spaceflight will stagnate and the entire civil space program may be in jeopardy,” Spudis believes.
In the text of an address to be given at the ILEWG, provided to Space.com, Spudis says the claim that only a human Mars mission will draw the necessary public support is faulty.
“The initiation of such a program is unlikely for two reasons: It’s too technically challenging for at
least another decade and will cost more money than Congress can be reasonably expected to provide,” Spudis explains.
“The mission of a lunar return should be to learn how to use off-planet resources. Such a mission is technically challenging, but within relatively easy reach. It gives NASA a task that is directly relevant to future American national and commercial interests in space, thus making it politically palatable,” Spudis adds. “A return to the moon will be the first step towards both true space independence and to the planets beyond.”
Sure to be hotly debated within the circle of ILEWG lunar experts, Durst said, is the availability of lunar water, pocketed within shaded craters, particularly at the lunar south pole.
In the 1990s, observations by both the Pentagon’s Clementine spacecraft and NASA’s Lunar Prospector suggested that deposits of hydrogen are tucked away in areas of shaded terrain on the Moon. That hydrogen is thought by some scientists to be in the form of water ice. If so, processing that resource into caches of life supporting water, rocket fuel, and breathable air should become feasible.
Those observations, however, have been called to question. In last Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature, radar astronomer Bruce Campbell of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian Institution, along with several colleagues, doubted the claim of thick deposits or “slabs” of ice at some depth.
Using the giant Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, radar pings of the lunar poles show no evidence of thick ice at a depth of several feet at the lunar poles, Campbell reported. “There are no places that we have looked at…where you see that kind of signature,” he said in a press statement.
Crying foul regarding Campbell’s recent report is Stewart Nozette, chief scientist for the Clementine mission, now working at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He contends that while a weak signature, Clementine yielded data that is consistent with small amounts of ice mixed in with lunar regolith — the topside mix of moon “soil” and rock.
“We never said there were slabs of ice there,” Nozette told Space.com. This still “lively debate” will not be settled using Earth-based radar, he added.
Rather, a radar-carrying lunar orbiter, Nozette said, could better pinpoint the whereabouts of any water ice at the lunar poles. By finding the most likely places, robot landers could be dispatched to those sites for on-the-spot analysis, he said.
Meanwhile, Durst concedes that finding water on the moon would make getting a toehold there easier.
“There are those who are pro-ice and those that are deicers, and others in-between. Whether there’s a lot or a little makes it easier, but the goals are still the same,” Durst said. “Why the moon? Quite simply, it’s the quickest way to the stars. It’s a catalyst. Once we have dominion of the Earth-moon system, everything will open up for us. Not just Mars and Jupiter … but the whole thing.”
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